Tech Billionaires Are In Space, And Data Centers Are Following Close Behind
Tech billionaires are launching themselves into orbit, and now data centers are heading to space as well.
Space-based data centers are close to becoming a reality, as an ever-growing flood of satellite data necessitates processing and storage in orbit around the Earth. At the same time, a planned lunar data center is at the heart of an international effort to build a permanent settlement on the moon.
While no one will confuse the lunar surface with Virginia's Loudoun County anytime soon, industry insiders focused on the intersection of rack space and outer space say off-Earth data centers will be a springboard for innovation and commercial applications in space.
On the horizon? Lunar laboratories, space-based drones, autonomous spacecraft and other technologies — and that's just the beginning.
“This is going to be a bedrock piece of infrastructure for a fully developed space information ecosystem,” said Richard Ward, the founder of space data startup OrbitsEdge, which plans to launch a constellation of edge data centers into orbit starting next year.
“We're looking at it as a utility, and I think it’s eventually going to be considered as vital as electricity in terms of the possibilities it opens up.”
While data centers in space may pave the way for innovation from the realm of science fiction, a market for off-Earth computing and storage is already here.
Commercial spaceflight has driven down the cost of launching satellites and other equipment, and a torrent of data now constantly floods back to Earth from imaging and remote sensing satellites used to study everything from traffic patterns to ocean temperature.
This explosion of data has helped drive global demand for terrestrial data centers and cloud capacity — both Microsoft and Google created cloud platforms specifically for this market, building satellite links into data centers and developing cloud-based command and control services.
So why move that processing power to space? Experts say that the operators of these satellites want to avoid having to use another expensive resource: the transmission link to the ground.
A significant percentage of the information collected by remote sensing equipment is of little or no value, said North Dakota State University computer science professor Jeremy Straub, an expert in space-based computing.
A satellite used to study agricultural yields may still generate images when the satellite isn’t over farmland or when the ground is obscured by clouds. That’s a lot of useless information that requires money, time and energy to transmit.
“Processing the data that’s collected in space using a space-based system allows you to make use of the transmission link more effectively,” Straub said. “You can process the data in space to separate just the most important data, which allows you to reduce cost and to send it back to Earth more quickly.”
Often called orbital edge computing, this kind of simple automated space-based data processing is already in use commercially by a number of operators. Satellites launched by San Francisco-based Loft Orbital, which colocates payloads from multiple clients, include a central computing hub capable of running multiple processing tasks simultaneously for different payloads.
But the first true space data centers — satellites bearing enterprise servers that remotely provide advanced processing power and connectivity for other space-based infrastructure — are still likely a year or more away from launch.
In the U.S., Florida-based OrbitsEdge expects to activate the first of 30 planned data center satellites by the end of 2022. Each satellite is effectively an edge data center similar to what might be found on Earth, with a modular rack designed to accommodate off-the-shelf servers. Initially, these units will house Hewlett Packard Enterprise servers, currently in their second round of testing on the International Space Station as part of a broader effort to adapt computing hardware to the harsh environment of space.
The increased exposure to radiation outside the Earth’s atmosphere presented one of the most significant engineering problems, OrbitsEdge CEO Richard Ward said. Even after developing a proprietary casing that blocks much of the particle bombardment, he expects the servers to have a shelf life of just five years.
Developing cooling systems that operate without monitoring also presented challenges, according to Ward — although he and other experts point to some advantages of space for data centers. While solar energy may be unpredictable on Earth, the energy available for solar panels in space can be predicted precisely years in advance.
Ward said that, while he expects these data centers to be used mainly to process imaging data at first, they will eventually enable everything from advanced research space-based labs to autonomous spacecraft. He said space-based data centers are the missing piece of infrastructure needed to create an information ecosystem that will open the floodgates of innovation and commercialization in space.
“Optimizing and improving Earth observation data is just the low-hanging fruit,” Ward said.
The European Space Agency shares the view that data centers in space are needed to make space more accessible to both governments and private industry. They’re looking at building one on the moon.
In May, the ESA contracted Italian aerospace firm Thales Alenia to study the feasibility of establishing a lunar data center in the next decade. The future facility is being studied as a central element of the ESA’s joint effort with NASA to establish research stations and self-sustaining settlements on the moon.
ESA’s Moonlight Initiative, along with NASA’s Artemis mission, aims to build lunar infrastructure as both a test run for Mars and as a tool to stimulate space commercialization. The building blocks of a future telecommunications network around the moon — such as a GPS-like lunar navigation system and space-based 4G nodes — are in the works.
These projects envision permanent science colonies on the lunar surface – with laboratories for experiments and base camps for lunar exploration using drones and autonomous vehicles. Remote computing power and data storage are key elements of these plans, but terrestrial data centers are of limited utility for many applications. It takes information about 1.5 seconds to travel from the moon to Earth.
That kind of latency is a non-starter when the computing is being used for tasks like helping an astronaut fly a drone over the moon’s surface.
Reduced latency for space-based computing is a key element of making space travel more accessible, according to ESA officials. If any of the computing functions on a spacecraft can be handled remotely, that means less hardware that has to be specifically designed for that mission, less development time and, perhaps most importantly, less money.
“We see this as significantly reducing the cost and complexity of subsequent individual expeditions,” said Graham Turnock, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, speaking to media following the project’s announcement.
“It will be a base for future exploration and economic activity of the sort that we can only begin imagining today, and starting to put that infrastructure in place is essential.”
Do space-based data centers have any utility for current data storage or processing needs on Earth? The next time Jeff Bezos goes to space, will it be to scout locations for the next AWS facility?
The final frontier makes for bad real estate when it comes to today’s Earthly colocation or cloud computing needs, North Dakota State’s Straub said. Just the cost of transporting the necessary materials into space would far exceed the cost of building a new data center anywhere in the world.
“The economics don’t make sense, and they won’t at any point in the foreseeable future,” Straub said. “Are we going to be launching server racks into space because it’s cheaper than building a data center in Houston? No.”